When people think of the Wired—although most don’t—they imagine pain. It’s a given really, letting someone cut into a person’s head, hook them up to a machine? Of course there’s going to be pain. But the truth is you don’t remember any of this. You were out the entire time during the procedure, and you don’t feel anything afterwards. Not the thin cables running under your skin and into the base of your skull, or the data stem you are suspended to. Not the warm air against your face. Not your arms or your legs. Nothing at all.
Sometimes you think of pain with a degree of fondness. The way it would throb up your foot after you stubbed a toe, reminding you that it was still there. You’re not sure of that anymore. You’d been given assurances, naturally, before you signed on the dotted line. No harm would come to your body while you were Wired, you would be released at the end of your contract with a nice little nest egg to retire on. It would be like waking up from a dream. But they neglected to mention what kind of dream this would be, and it’s not like there’s anything you can do if promises are broken. Nobody’s waiting for you outside.
In a way, it is better than Before. No more nights sleeping on the street with a knife tucked into your sock, no more giving blow jobs to strangers in exchange for a sandwich. Except you don’t really sleep anymore. Sleep Mode is more akin to a doze, half of your awareness always engaged in making sure the air is being filtered and the lights are staying on, and while you expect that nutrients are coming to you somehow, you have no conscious awareness of waste coming in or out. But at least you’re never bored. It can be exhilarating, being everywhere at once—so long as you don’t think about how your influence ends at the door. You have the Internet at your metaphorical fingers twenty-four hours a day, hours of security footage, and an endless expanse of office emails to sift through. You’re not technically supposed to read these, but it’s a lot easier to hack the System when you are the System, and Security is more concerned with making sure you don’t lock all the doors and fuck up the air filters than they are with personal privacy and who’s sleeping with who.
You’re not lacking in company, either. You’re not the only Wired, not for a business this size. The sheer flow of information would burst all the blood cells in your brain. There are hundreds in the network and you can transmit back and forth. Some of them are lucid, friendly even, but most have been in so long they can only speak in error messages and binary code. You try not to think about getting that low. You keep your file on hand and skim through it often, just to remind yourself of what you looked like. Age:26. Occupation: N/A. Address: Homeless. Synchronicity levels: 85%. Prime candidate.
You look into that boy’s eyes, staring sullenly at the cameras that would become an extension of yourself, and try to remember being him. It is getting harder all the time.
You feel the door to your enclosure open, the tingle of an electric card swipe, and it takes you a moment to narrow your focus and shift your brain to open your actual eyes—or what you hope are your eyes—that you so seldom get to use.
It’s a Technician, and you can see in the way he tries to look everywhere but at you that he is new. That, and only the newbies pull the graveyard shift. Only the most vital systems are operating, so there isn’t much to do except monitor your vitals and possibly clean your shit.
He is nervous, the way they all are initially. He is short, with brown curly hair that sticks up in cowlicks. Grey eyes, a mole behind his ear. You do a brief scan of personnel files, looking to match a name with a face. Ryan Morgan, age twenty-four with a degree in Bio-Programming. Young. Not only new to the Company, but new to the position. His hands shake as he goes through the standard protocols. For a moment, you are tempted to hold your breath so that the screens flash warning signals, just to scare him, but the momentary amusement is not worth the punishment that would certainly follow.
Eventually, his motions smooth out as he gets lost in the work. He begins to talk to himself as he types.
“Vitals look steady. Bit of a calcium deficiency. Definitely adjust the nutrient solution—”
It’s pleasant, hearing a voice. A nice change from the constant hum of machinery. The last overnight Tech never spoke. Occasionally, he would grunt in lieu of words, eyes never leaving his screen, which chiefly featured buxom twins rolling around in a plastic swimming pool. You don’t miss him.
Ryan, on the other hand, likes to keep up whole conversations with himself. Gentle admonishment whenever he makes a mistake, working out problems out loud, even punctuating his points with soft sweeps of his arms. Honestly, you don’t know why he bothers. What does it matter if you’re getting enough calcium or if your temperature is slightly elevated? You’re still operating in peak efficiency.
He is about two hours in when he glances up and realizes that your eyes are open and that you are looking at him. You haven’t been able to stop looking at him, actually. He’s more animated than what you’re used to. It is generally pretty quiet in Sub-Basement D, and something about his movements, the way he adjusts in his chair, wrinkles his nose when he’s thinking, is endlessly fascinating to you. This is how a body moves.
Ryan’s gaze darts away, but a moment later he glances back. You are still looking at him. He smiles, lips twitching without meeting his eyes. You don’t try to smile back. You’re too afraid that the muscles won’t answer.
“Hello there,” he says.
You stare, uncertain on how to respond. No one’s ever talked to you before. All the information needed for maintenance is on the screen in heat signals, fluid output, and neural outlines. Your input is rarely necessary.
“I’m Ryan, the new Technician. I’ll be helping to take care of you from now on.”
Taking care of you. An interesting way to phrase his job description. In your experience, maintenance has little regard for your comfort. He’s here to keep you numb, compliant, and efficient. If he’s taking care of anything, it’s the System. You can’t fathom the depths of Ryan’s naivete if he truly believes anything he is doing is for your benefit.
You feel a low rumble deep within, and with a start you realize you are laughing.
Ryan is even more surprised than you are. He leans forward over the screens, frantically typing, searching for whatever glitch made the noise.
This is not the time to test whether you still have vocal cords. You are both frightened enough. You send him a text.
Calm down. I’m fine.
He looks down at the screen. Then up at you. Back at the screen. You grow weary of waiting for his tiny brain to put it all together.
Who else could be talking to you? We’re the only ones here.
“I—I didn’t know you could talk,” Ryan says.
Well, now you do.
He laughs, a short, nervous puff of air. There is a long moment of silence, but eventually he realizes that additional speech isn’t forthcoming. He returns to work, although he still sneaks frequent glances at you, his shoulders tensing a little more every time he sees that you are still looking at him. You revel in his discomfort. Let him see the pinnacle of science, the flesh behind his way of life, and know that it speaks. That it has a name.
Ryan doesn’t talk to you the next day. Or the day after. He tries to ignore you for the rest of the week. But he’s very aware of your presence. You can tell in the way he fixes his eyes on the screen, gaze firmly forward. But his pupils don’t dart around like they used to, and he doesn’t talk to himself anymore, hypersensitive that someone is listening.
But he can’t avoid the machine forever. Friday rolls around. End of the week. Last Friday of the month. Time for a routine diagnostic test. You dread these checks. First, you are injected with neuromuscular blockers to prevent you from seizing during the process, then each individual nerve ending is fired to make sure that they are properly connected. You feel a little prick before the numbness sets back in. Take that sensation and repeat it 95 billion times, while you are unable to move, unable to scream. It is the one time that pain isn’t a vague, almost romantic concept. You are reminded that yes, somehow your body still exists, and in that moment, it doesn’t seem worth it at all.
Ryan inputs the familiar protocols. His hands twitch. He is no idiot, he knows what this means. He makes the mistake of looking at you and fidgets in his chair.
“This may sting,” he says, before pressing ENTER.
The screens always go haywire while diagnostics run, your heart beating fast, breathing erratic and brain flaring with warning signals. It is the only time you are detached from the larger System, so that your distress doesn’t interfere with anything important.
The lights begin to flicker. Looks like someone forgot to disconnect you from the secondary electrics. A prank, probably, hazing on the newbie. You would find it funny if it weren’t for the quiet, paralyzed agony.
Ryan assumes the light show is indicative of a larger problem, but instead of scouring through the programs, he surprises you by getting out of his chair and rushing over. You are shocked to see his face so close to yours, and lancing through the pain is a soft pressure. A touch.
“Shh,” he says, stroking your arm—you think it’s your arm—in soft, circular motions. “Calm down. It’s okay.”
You want to light all his nerve endings on fire and ask him if he thinks it is “okay”. But it’s been so long since anyone’s touched you. You can’t feel him, not really. You’re too drugged to feel the warmth and texture of his skin. But it’s human, the first human thing you’ve experienced in nearly four years. It reminds you of Before, of fingers combing through your hair, the whisper of lips against your shoulder blade. You hate him for this. You don’t ever want him to stop.
But stop he does. The diagnostics run their course, the pain fades, and the lights come back on-line. His hand falls back to his side.
“Are…are you all right?”
You’re not used to questions but cooperating with your Technician is one of your main Directives. He is too far away from the screens, so you ping his tablet.
I am operating at maximum efficiency. Which is really all you can ask for.
Ryan stares at the message for several moments, frowning. “Yes…but that’s an assessment of the System. The computer can tell me that. I want to know if you are all right.”
You’re…not sure how to answer that. Usually, maximum efficiency is enough. If the System is doing okay, then you must be doing okay.
I don’t understand the question. What does he want from you? What’s the right answer? You’re not in pain anymore, but considering you’re back on the standard numbing agents, that much should have been obvious.
Ryan purses his lips. “I just…I’ve never done this before. I do know the diagnostics procedure, obviously I know what it entails, but I never thought it would be…like that. The sheer physical strain, you know? Well, of course you know.” He exhales a nervous, breathy laugh. “I guess…how do you feel?”
What does it matter? I’m back on-line and running smoothly. My feelings are irrelevant.
Ryan looks like he wants to say something else, but he lets the matter drop and doesn’t speak to you for the rest of the night. In four hours, the next person shows up for shift change. She smiles at Ryan, taking in his rumpled clothing and mussed hair. Our time together has taken its toll.
“Rough night?” she asks.
Ryan shrugs, taking the coffee offered to him.
“First diagnostics check is always hard,” she says. “Don’t worry, it gets easier.”
Ryan’s shoulders hunch. He frowns, takes a deep swig of his coffee. “If you say so,” he says, picking up his bag and heading to the door.
But he stops at the threshold, taking a glance back and holding your gaze. He smiles a little, giving an almost imperceptible wave.
And then the door closes behind him, leaving you in Silence.
You have been Wired for three years, eleven months, twelve days, and twenty-two hours. Keeping track is easy when your consciousness is directly connected to a clock, but it’s not something you think about much. There’s no real structure to your life save for scheduled protocols and Sleep Mode, so your perception of time is not determined by the hours of the day, but by the speed of information. It feels like you’ve been here only a moment. It feels like you’ve never been anywhere else.
Your contract isn’t even halfway over yet.
The time is easier spent when Ryan is around. You watch him constantly, partially because his twitchy movements and muttering remains endlessly entertaining, but mostly because you know he finds the scrutiny unnerving. He’s met your eyes more than once, beginning an extended staring contest. He always looks away first.
After about two weeks of this, Ryan shows up with a game of checkers. He holds it out in front of him with both hands, like he’s offering food to a wild animal. “Fancy a game? These nights can get long without something to do.”
After watching him for weeks, you have Ryan pegged as a True Believer. Someone not in this for the money or corporate advancement, but a genuine idealist who bought the Company’s mission statement of creating a better world. But this? This is unexpected.
You want to play checkers? With me?
Ryan shrugs. “Sure. After all, you’re the only one here.”
You wonder if he’s writing a book. Perhaps he wishes to study the Wired in their natural environment, test reactions to stimuli and so on. Or worse, he’s a fetishist, and soon he’ll be trying to lick the spaces where the cords meet skin. The Company typically tries to vet these people out, but there’s always someone who slips through the cracks.
You consider all this, but the idea of a physical game with a physical opponent is too appealing to pass up. Ryan pulls his chair out to sit in front of your module, and you watch the flick of Ryan’s fingers as he sets up the board. You ping your moves to his tablet, and he manipulates the pieces on your behalf.
You could lose your job for this. Or worse. The Wired are the backbone of the Company. Everything; all the data, the security systems, the very functionality of the building, runs through a network of Wired minds, which is why you’re nearly always conscious. Tampering with you in even the smallest way is tantamount to sabotage. Already, you are erasing the chat logs, looping the security footage, but there’s only so much you can do if someone tries to look closer.
“I’ll just tell them I’m stimulating your synaptic pathways,” Ryan says. He moves his piece to the edge of the board. “King me.”
You triple jump his pieces in response, and he groans.
Why take the risk? Do you normally play board games with the office supplies?
“You’re not a stapler.”
But for the length of my contract, I’m Company property, the same as your tablet and the chair that you’re sitting on. You move one of your pieces to the edge of the board.
“I know…but you’re still a person.”
And that’s a revelation? Surely, you knew that going in.
“But you weren’t supposed to be like—like this!” Ryan says, waving his hands in your direction. “You talk. You feel pain. You’re sarcastic, for God’s sake! I—I didn’t know.”
No, you didn’t care. No one does as long as the lights stay on.
Ryan’s silent, head down, staring at his shoes. “…I’m sorry.”
This is a statement of fact, not an accusation. Now are you going to make a move or not?
He moves forward, leaving himself open for you to capture his last pieces. He resets the board, fingers tracing over the little circles of plastic. And you play. Again and again and again.
You don’t really expect him back after that. You await the ping of the transfer request to somewhere safer. Less hands on. Perhaps Human Resources, since he cares about feelings so much. It’s a shame, it was nice to talk to someone in real time, but Technicians come and go. You’re not one to get attached.
But Ryan’s back the next day with more board games tucked under his arm. In the next six months, the games become routine. Checkers intersperses with chess and elaborate games of hangman. You learn quite a bit about Ryan in this time. About his doctor parents, their disapproval when he decided to go into Bio-Engineering. Anecdotes from college and his time abroad studying the European Interface. His charity work outfitting underprivileged neighborhoods into the System. He also asks you questions, and eventually you start answering them. He starts small; favorite color, animals you like and so on. Small, impersonal data, easing you in before dropping the bomb.
“What’s your name?” Ryan asks, drawing some open boils on your poor hanged man. At some point the game became less about guessing words and more about drawing the most grotesque stick figure possible. “All my supervisor gave me was a serial number. W-X6514790.”
“Yeah, just rolls off the tongue.” He grins. You like the way it makes his eyes crinkle, until they’re practically slits set deep into his face. “What were you called before…all this?”
You don’t want to tell him, not at first. You keep your name close. It’s the one memory that doesn’t hurt, and you’re not sure if you want to share that. But you also want to hear him say it, to see his mouth move as he works the syllables.
You clear the screen, setting up a fresh noose for a new victim. Let’s see if you can guess it before hanging yourself.
You don’t make it easy for him. You limit the games and are merciless with his mistakes. You make him go on scavenger hunts for the letters. You draw it out for weeks, expecting him to forfeit and just look up the information.
“I don’t want to get it from the computer,” Ryan says. “I want to get it from you.”
So, you give an inch, allow him a few more games, a few extra turns. Eventually the name reveals itself.
“Adrien,” he says, and it’s like hearing it for the first time.
You find yourself telling him more things, things that can’t be found in your file, things you thought you’d forgotten. You lost your parents in the floods. Your earliest memory is of wandering the streets, alone and lost. Eventually, you get taken to a refugee center. A kind old man adopts you, lets you call him grandpa, and until you’re thirteen, things are all right. Then he dies and it’s back to the pavement, selling whatever you have in order to survive. When you were collected, when you signed yourself away, you told yourself it didn’t matter. Your body hadn’t belonged to you in a long time.
You were wrong.
Ryan listens to your story quietly, scrutinizing the chess board laid before him even though thoughts have strayed far beyond the game. “When I got my degree…we were told it was a choice. That these people chose to serve for the greater good. And so much good has come from the System. Clean, limitless energy, the ending of so much poverty and hunger. I thought it was worth it.”
Maybe it is, you tell him. Maybe it’s all worth it. For them and for you. Not for me.
“No,” Ryan says. “Not for you.”
You don’t play any more chess that night.
He keeps bringing the games, but it’s not the same. Ryan is distracted. Often, he will stop a game midway through, sometimes even mid-move.
“It’s just work,” he says when you ask what’s wrong. “Things have gotten busier lately.”
But you know he’s hiding something from you. He is at the computer more than ever, his work so deeply encrypted that not even you can see what he is doing. Not without immediately alerting him to the intrusion, anyway, and you’re too afraid of what will happen if you cross that line.
You worry that you’ve gone too far, destroyed this relationship with the truth. You just wanted him to know you, to know that there is a person within these wires and text updates. Sometimes, more often than you’d like to admit, you forget that yourself.
But instead, it seems he has gone the opposite direction. You frightened him with your humanity, so he is refocusing on the machine. He exposed you, dug out your past and emotions from the depths of the System, and now he’s running away. You hate him. Coward, awful, cruel—”Look at me, you bastard!”
You said that out loud. Not text, your voice, croaky and garbled from disuse, but yours. Ryan probably didn’t even understand your words but look up he does. He approaches you, puts his hand on your face. It comes back wet.
“Are you crying?” His hands cup both of your cheeks, his forehead leaning to rest against yours. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” And then, he leans closer still, whispers into one of your audio sensors—your ears, they are your ears, “How would you like to get out of here?”
What? you text—you don’t trust your newfound voice. How—Is that even possible?
“It is,” Ryan says. “I’ve been looking into the Extraction Protocols. They’re under heavy security so I’ve had to be careful. I didn’t want to bring it up to you until I was sure I could do it.”
“It’s risky,” he admits. “It’s not done very often. The subjects that make it to the end of their term are usually so far gone they don’t have the capacity to leave. The shock alone could kill you. But I can do it, if that’s what you want.”
Is it? Deep down, you never imagined what it would be like to go back to the world. To go back to flesh and blood after years of nothing but wires.
But you’d be able to feel skin on skin again. Taste food on your tongue. Get out of this goddamn basement.
“Yes.” Your voice comes out clearer with less syllables to deal with.
Ryan smiles, squeezes what you hope is your hand—oh God, you’re finally going to have to face what’s left of you. “All right.”
You must be detached by degrees, a process that takes weeks. Every day, Ryan pulls you a little further out, partially so that your absence isn’t noticed. The other Wired will automatically take up the slack as long as the influx of new information isn’t too drastic. But it’s also to acclimate yourself to living outside the System. Dependency is inevitable. It’s like slowly introducing a fish into foreign waters. You have to relearn how to breathe.
Ryan promises that he’ll take you away. He’s been reading about communities deep in the Desert, far away from any sort of network. He brings you desert flowers, talks about the house you’ll have, maybe even a dog—
“I mean, if you want that of course. We don’t have to live together, we don’t—”
“I’m no good with dogs. Can we have a cat?” you ask.
He smiles. “Yes. We can get a cat.”
You think about Ryan, the house, and the cat to fill the holes the wires left. You don’t want to miss the System, but you can’t help but feel empty in its absence. A whole world, even one that strips at your body and mind, is a hard thing to let go of. And it’s harder still, getting to know your body again. Feeling comes back first, and with it the bone deep ache the System was keeping you numb to. The data stem burns against your back, your skin throbs, and some part of you can’t believe how limited a human body is now that you no longer have cameras to scan the corridors. Your legs cannot travel along electric pathways. They can’t do anything at all. You feel trapped in your skin, muscles atrophied; limbs shriveled and tiny like a child’s. You try not to wonder if this is just another prison of your own making.
“We’ll fix that,” Ryan says, rubbing his fingers gently over your temples as he heads towards the mesh of wires connecting your skull to the data stem. Theoretically, they should be able to come out, but you don’t know how anyone can extract something so deeply embedded. “We’ll have you walking in no time.”
You don’t believe him, not really.
“What if I can’t do this?” you ask. “I don’t know how to live in my body. Not anymore.”
“We’ll learn together,” Ryan says. “I promise you’re not alone.”
You focus on Ryan’s hands on your neck, how you can finally feel his heat, the dryness of his skin, and nod once.
Ryan tries to be gentle, but you feel every pull as the wires come out inch by inch. Once freed, you find there’s nothing to support you. You crumble.
Ryan’s arms are around you, supporting your entire weight with an ease that you would resent if you weren’t so warm.
“I love you, Adrien,” he whispers, and you smile.
You get to enjoy the moment for a minute. Maybe two. Then there are footsteps. Flashing lights. Ryan is shouting. He picks you up, cradling your useless sack of bones against his chest and tries to run, but he doesn’t get far. There a soft thud of impact, and you are tumbling to the floor. A tranquilizer dart, you assume. You’ll find out for sure when you watch the tapes later.
You wish you could move, could reach out and hold Ryan’s hand. Let him lie to you one last time that it’s all going to be okay. But the face that approaches isn’t his. It isn’t a face at all. It is a smooth expanse of plastic nothing. Hands grab at you, smooth latex, propping you up, finding a vein. A prick on your neck. You hear shouting. “Adrien! Adrien!”
It rings in your ears briefly. And then there is nothing.
They don’t put you back on the drugs right away. They let you feel it for a while. Your humanity is a punishment. You scream even after they freeze your throat, your mouth opening and closing as you silently suffer.
You agonize over what went wrong. Was there a mistake in the dummy program that was supposed to serve as your substitute? Did another Wired or one of Ryan’s outside contacts tip the Company off? Was it you? Have you been acting as the Company’s eyes and ears, an unknowing pawn, this entire time?
Even worse, you don’t know what happened to Ryan. No one else knows either. He is gone, all record erased. Ryan’s fate is left to your imagination, the depths of which are limitless. Torture, imprisonment, death. The Company has no mercy for a thief.
You get angry. You tug against mental inhibitors that limit your access, trying to lash out, to burn it all. It would be suicide. It would be worth it. But security is too strong, you can’t make a move. Anger turns to despair, and some part of you hates Ryan. He has broken you down in a way the System never could.
There is a message blinking in the corner of your consciousness. A text. Probably another System Update. The other Wired are steering clear of you. Nobody wants to be associated with the rogue element.
You try to ignore it, but it’s followed by another message, and another. They’ll keep coming until you answer, so with resignation you open the attachment. The words flood into your mind.
Your name and a little hangman sketch, waving at you from his noose.
You should’ve known he would be Wired. The Company knew better than to waste good material.
You move forward, into his interface. Your minds touch, merging and intertwining like electricity. It’s not the same, you miss his fingers, his words, his mouth, but it’s so much better than nothing at all.
Ryan is not taking his new life very well. Nothing prepares you for the System, even for those who consent, and whoever oversaw his intake did not do a thorough job. His shocked mind had reached out for anything familiar. He found you.
At first, his messages are fragmented. He doesn’t know where he is or what happened. You have to acclimate him slowly, hold him as he grieves his family, his life. The only thing he has left is you, and some small, horrible part of you is happy.
You paint him pictures. Desert flowers, cats and dogs. A little house. He gets better, little by little, starts talking a little more, adding his own touches to the picture. Eventually, concrete forms fade into colors, a whole world of pixels, just for the two of you. You immerse yourselves into it, deeper and deeper.
Sometimes, thoughts flicker through the haze. You’ll look at your partner and realize you don’t remember the color of his eyes. What’s his name? What’s your name?
The question will haunt you, for a moment, but you feel the pressure of his mind against yours, the connection gentle as an embrace, and the thought will slip away, a drop in an endless stream of data.